Moon God Stele Discovered at Sacred High Place in Northern Israel

About 3,000 years ago, it seems the people in what may have become the Jewish village of Bethsaida saw invaders coming and carefully buried their sacred icons

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The newly discovered high place at the gate of the city of Bethsaida, 11th-10th centuries BCE
The newly discovered high place at the gate of the city of Bethsaida, 11th-10th centuries BCECredit: Hanan Shafir
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

In the year 920 B.C.E., give or take a few years, the faithful in a fortified town in the Golan Heights could evidently see it coming: an invasion force that threatened to overcome the walls and vanquish them. Quaking in terror, presumably, it seems they carefully dismantled the icons in their sacred High Place lest the marauders give them the usual treatment of conquerors and contemptuously shatter the sacred images.

Almost 3,000 years later, archaeologists excavating the site the local Arabs called e-Tell and the team called “Bethsaida” found a rare stele of the powerful Mesopotamian moon god lying on its face, hiding the potentially provocative image.

In fact, what they did in the summer digging season of 2019 at the site of e-Tell, on the banks of the Jordan River a couple of kilometers north of the Sea of Galilee, was to turn over “an unassuming basalt stone” that had been uncovered a few years back but left untouched. It had served mainly for the excavation volunteers to sit on and eat popsicles in the baking summer heat. The stone, some 70 centimeters tall by about 45 centimeters wide and some 15 centimeters thick (some 27 inches tall, 18 inches wide and 6 inches thick), was one of many resting by the corner of an ancient fortification tower. And when they turned it over, there was the image – adored throughout the Levant and Mesopotamia in the Iron Age – of the moon god.

“Under siege, the inhabitants may have purposefully set the icon in its final resting spot in order to protect it where it remained intact. The fact is, it never broke. The invaders didn’t see it as something symbolic,” Prof. Rami Arav of the at the University of Nebraska, Omaha and the director of the Bethsaida excavation, tells Haaretz.

Moon-god stele from the 11th-10th century B.C.E. found at e-Tell Bethsaida
Moon-god stele from the 11th-10th century B.C.E. found at e-Tell BethsaidaCredit: Hanan Shafir

What’s in a biblical name?

To get one issue out of the way: there are other contenders for the site of the “true” Bethsaida – the Jewish fishing village where scripture says Jesus’ disciples Peter, Andrew and Philip were born. Another is the nearby site of el-Araj, which is presently underwater thanks to heavy rains this winter swelling the Sea of Galilee. The committee of names operating under the auspices of the Prime Minister’s Office accepted e-Tell as “the real Bethsaida” around a quarter-century ago, Arav points out, and thus it appears on maps.

Which begs for a moment on how archaeological sites are identified with names in the Bible and in general. Before the advent of archaeology and specifically biblical archaeologists, mounds didn’t have names, Arav explains. We often have no idea what an ancient city was named, and e-Tell is simply Arabic for “artificial mound” – that’s what the locals called it. For example, the identification of the biblical city of Gath moved from a big tell called Tel Erani in southern Israel to another big tell in southern Israel, a-Safi, based on accruing archaeological evidence and its comparison with the description in the sources.

In any case, Arav has been identifying e-Tell as Bethsaida since 1987, noting that in its incarnation during the early Roman era when Jesus’ disciples supposedly lived, the archaeological evidence shows the settlement was Jewish. Regarding the argument that el-Araj is identified with Bethsaida, including because of the Byzantine church found there (which the excavators believe is the Church of the Apostles erected on the site of the disciples’ village), Arav points out that site identification in the ancient world was driven by faith, not scientific evidence.

The strong tower at the gate of Bethsaida, 11th century - 8th century BCE.
The strong tower at the gate of Bethsaida, 11th century - 8th century B.C.E.Credit: Hanan Shafir

For instance, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem was erected on a spot identified by Emperor Constantine’s mother, Helena, as the site of Jesus’ crucifixion and burial – in about the year 326, hundreds of years after the event – based on local lore, and no more.

The evolution of the moon god

The settlement at e-Tell goes back thousands of years, before Jews were a glint in Yahweh’s eye. By the 11th century B.C.E. it had become the capital of the pagan Kingdom of Geshur, which coexisted with the kingdoms of Israel and Judah to its south. The city was powerfully fortified, particularly in its period from the eighth and ninth centuries B.C.E., with towers every 20 meters and a vast city gate, Arav says.

“It was turned into a fortress. The city was surrounded by a double wall, an outer city wall and inner one, made of heavy stone. The inner one was thicker and higher,” he says – a defensive model found throughout Babylon and Assyria. “The people built that way because they wanted to send a psychological message that if you take the first line, the outer city wall, then you come to the real obstacle, the second wall.” The inner wall at e-Tell was 6 meters thick, and where the towers rose up it widened to 8 or 9 meters, he says.

The newly found moon god stele and High Place were located on the corner of what was probably the southeast tower of the courtyard “between the two gates” (2 Samuel 18:24), say Arav and his grad student Ann Haverkost, the field director of the e-Tell Bethsaida excavation.

The moon god stele from the 9th-8th century B.C.E. found at e-Tell Bethsaida
The moon god stele from the 9th-8th century B.C.E. found at e-Tell BethsaidaCredit: Ilan Sztulman
The minute of the discovery of the stele
The minute of the discovery of the oldest known moon god stele, 11th-10th century B.C.E.Credit: Hanan Shafir

In fact, it was the second moon god stele to be found at e-Tell, and came from a layer dating to the 10th to 11th centuries B.C.E., over 3,000 years ago. The first such icon the archaeologists found dated to the eighth or ninth century B.C.E. The newly discovered one is also just the sixth and oldest stele to be found of the moon god image: three were found fairly nearby, in southern Syria, and one was found in Gaziantep, southern Turkey.

Its image is relatively rudimentary. “This new stele gives us an idea of how the image of the god evolved during the Iron Age,” Arav says: The new icon has what could be translated as bull’s horns or a crescent moon sitting on top of a pedestal with four bars curving downward, which the first moon god stele found in e-Tell in 1997 also evinced. But the younger stele from the eighth to ninth century B.C.E. period of the town sports a bull’s head, sword, and four globes, which the older one from the 10th to 11th century B.C.E. doesn’t. What might the putative simplification of the image portend? “Ask a psychiatrist,” Arav says over the phone.

If its image morphed so much, how do we know both steles show the moon god? Actually, the first (later) one found in e-Tell had been identified in 1997, by Osnat Misch-Brandl, as the storm god Hadad of Damascus. The following year, however, Monika Bernett and Othmar Keel suggested it was the moon god from Haran. Then, in 2001, Tallay Ornan suggested the stele represented both, conflating the two gods. Arav and Haverkost posit that the newly found specimen with a carved crescent but no bull’s head supports that latter contention, and that the image is the moon god.

Ann Haverkost, field director
Ann Haverkost, field directorCredit: Hanan Shafir

Also, the lowest curved bars on the new stele’s pedestal don’t reach the ground, Arav and Haverkost explain: they would have if they’d represented a bull’s legs.

Competing Creation myths

If rare on steles, the moon god image was common in other media. It apparently originated in Mesopotamia in the Bronze Age, as people began to ask the age-old questions: “What was our genesis? How was the world created?” The ancient Egyptians knew: in the beginning there was the sun, and Ra was always there. And lo, the Mesopotamians either wanted to distinguish themselves politically and culturally, or thought that was ridiculous because in the beginning obviously all was darkness, Arav explains. And what is the biggest element in the sky when night falls and the darkness comes back? The moon. So clearly, the moon was the impetus behind Creation.

Later, the Jews would adopt the Mesopotamian principle: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form, and void; and darkness was on the face of the deep” (Genesis 1:1-2). “I bet they didn’t pay royalties to the Mesopotamians,” Arav quips. The Jews, however, left out a crucial element of the Mesopotamian belief – that the moon god didn’t do it alone; Creation was a group effort by the pantheon, with each god or goddess responsible for a different aspect.

 The plaza of the earlier city gate: The High Place is seen at the left. 11-10 centuries BCE
The plaza of the earlier city gate: The High Place is seen at the left. 11-10 centuries BCECredit: Hanan Shafir

From the Late Bronze Age to the Iron Age, the moon god cult would come to span the Levant and Mediterranean, and seems to have become especially powerful in the sixth century B.C.E., when Nebuchadezzar II built imposing temples to the god in Babylon and Haran, southern Turkey. Haran in fact served as the cultic center since the Late Bronze Age, where it seems the Mesopotamian god Sin and a Levantine moon god of unknown name were conflated, Arav and Haverkost explain.

“A cult to the moon god also already existed at Hazor during the Late Bronze Age, and it is possible the Arameans of the Iron Age maintained a cult in the region at Bethsaida after Hazor was destroyed,” he says.

The whole region, from Haran in Turkey to today’s Israel, were dominated by Aramean culture, which would come to include characteristics of the Canaanites in the Levant and Luwians in Turkey. “They shared the same culture and religion,” Arav explains. And it seems that in the capital of the Kingdom of Geshur, around 3,000 years ago, the people of whatever e-Tell was known as at the time put up a stele to the moon god and two unadorned steles that would be buried with it.

Worship of the moon god continued under the Chaldaic dynasty of Babylon at least through the sixth century B.C.E., Arav and Haverkost say, adding: “Interestingly, the ancient site on the opposite end of the Sea of Galilee is known as Beth Yerakh – meaning the ‘temple of the moon god.’ Another name for Beth Yerakh was Sinaberis, perhaps Sin-baris meaning the fortress of Sin, the moon god.”

But all good things come to an end, and in roughly 920 B.C.E. unknown attackers destroyed the city, and the stele from the 10th to 11th century B.C.E. was buried.

Who might have attacked? “We don’t know. We have contenders, but the conquerors in 920 B.C.E. didn’t leave behind a calling card,” Arav answers.

The town was rebuilt about 75 years later, apparently by the same people because the religion didn’t change, as evinced by the later moon god stele from the eighth to ninth century B.C.E., he explains. And that incarnation of the town would come to an end with the conquest of the Galilee by the Assyrian king Tiglath Pileser III in 732 B.C.E., and would rise anew when Alexander the Great of Macedonia conquered the region, about four hundred years later.

And it would fall and rise again and again. The 2019 season of the e-Tell "Bethsaida excavations" carried out under the sponsorship of the Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem uncovered ruins from all these periods and more: the fortified Iron Age city, the prosperous Hellenistic settlement, the Jewish community in the Hasmonean and Herodian periods, the Roman occupation, and also settlements from the Mamluk and Ottoman periods. And there its story ended.

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